Clarisse Lopez Offen on police, racial profiling and having uncomfortable conversations
Sep 21, 2020 04:39PM
By Alison Brimley
West Jordan resident Clarisse Lopez Offen says, “It’s really uncomfortable to watch the George Floyd video and watch a man die in front of you. But what our brains do is we need to justify things that make us uncomfortable. And a lot of people have engaged in that.”
By Alison Brimley | [email protected]
Clarisse Lopez Offen is careful to preface the story she’s about to tell. “I have had a lot of good—well, I haven’t had a lot of experience with police officers.”
Years ago, she was pulled over in Murray for failing to stop at a stop sign. The officer who stopped her had been across the busy street, writing a ticket for another driver, when Offen allegedly rolled through the stop.
“The cop came at me with a lot of aggression,” Offen remembers. “He said things like, ‘Are you insane?’” I thought, ‘That’s a weird opener.’”
He accused her of taking “forever” to pull over. (She had pulled off the busy road where his lights first started flashing and stopped in a parking lot.) “There was no place to pull over,” Offen countered. “I wanted you to be safe.” He said, “My safety is none of your business.”
When he explained why he’d pulled her over, Offen said she had indeed stopped. “He said, ‘Do not tell me that you did when you didn’t.’” When she protested that he was across the street and couldn’t have seen clearly, she says, “He lost it on me. He was like, ‘Do you want me to drag you out of the car?’”
Her husband warned her not to engage. She backed down. She got a ticket.
As a “matter of principle,” she made an appointment to contest the ticket. The moment the prosecutor saw the name of the officer who had written the ticket he said, “Oh, yeah, he has a reputation.” The charge was dropped.
“I was shocked and flabbergasted,” Offen said. “I said, ‘If he has a reputation, what is he doing in the streets?’ He didn’t have an answer.”
This is just one of the experiences with law enforcement that stick in Offen’s mind. Each one says something not only about the role of the officer and the suspected violator in such an interaction, but about the role of an observer. And in a time when the legitimacy of police action is under unprecedented scrutiny, the observer’s role is important—maybe not for the legal system but for observers themselves.
Offen is Latina, the daughter of a Portuguese mother and a Peruvian father. She looks “mostly white” and speaks largely without an accent—something she worked hard to lose after moving to the United States as a young adult. But it’s not a perfect disguise.
On another occasion, Offen was on her way to attend a funeral in Arizona with her husband. All cars entering the town where the funeral would be held had to pass through a border check, where an officer stood holding a stop sign. All the cars were allowed to pass through the checkpoint without stopping—until Offen’s.
She proceeded through the stop as she’d seen other cars do and was startled when she felt a bump on her hood. The cop was whacking the car with his fist, shouting, “Why didn’t you stop? Are you American? Are you illegal?”
The questions stung. “I’m not from here, but I am an American citizen,” Offen said passionately. “I don’t think a lot of Americans would pay a thousand dollars to become an American citizen. I did.”
Her husband, a “white American guy,” leaned forward and asked what was going on. “He saw my husband, and he stopped yelling at me,” Offen said. They were allowed to proceed.
Until that moment, Offen’s husband often doubted that poor treatment she claimed to experience as a non-white woman truly was racially motivated. Instead he was inclined to attribute it to the aggressor just having a bad day. But this “left him with no doubt. That changed how he saw things.”
She understands the skepticism.
“When you’re white, and your friends are white, and you’re good, kind people, you don’t behave that way, and you don’t see your friends behave that way, and you don’t have enough friends of color to see when they deal with that kind of stuff,” she said. “So why would you believe that it’s that bad if you have zero exposure to the problem?”
A recent experience in South Jordan gave Offen some exposure to the problem in a way she’d never seen. She and her husband were on a double date with friends at The District, seeing a movie. She noticed a police officer standing near the ticket taker at the theater but didn’t think much of it. Patrons handed their tickets to the ticket taker with no incident while the officer looked on, until the couple with the Offens—who were Black—approached. After the ticket taker had viewed their tickets and waved them in, the officer stopped them, asking to take another look at the tickets. What happened next left Offen with an “icy feeling.”
“The cop literally had the tickets in his hand, opened his hand, and dropped the tickets,” she said. “And keeping his gaze locked on my friend said, ‘Oh, look at that. You dropped the tickets. It was the most shocking thing I had ever seen in my life. You don’t think the worst of people. I then recognized that this was not a person with good intentions.”
She didn’t say anything to her friends for a while. They just wanted to see a movie and have a nice evening. Later, they talked with the couple about what happened. Offen apologized for not saying anything to the officer.
“The things that they shared with us opened up a conversation,” she said. “I was appalled. They were like, ‘We weren’t.’” For this couple, incidents like this were so common they weren’t even worth a complaint.
But Offen is hopeful about the conversations taking place now about race and law enforcement. In an unprecedented way, she said, people are willing to hear other people’s stories and trust that they’re telling the truth about their experience rather than seeking attention or sympathy.
She only recently learned of the experience of her “closest cousin,” a Latino man with a Ph.D. and a nice car, who was brutalized by police and had his car damaged. He was humiliated. And he had never spoken about it—until now.
“There’s a stigma that if you’re talking about it, you’re victimizing yourself,” Offen said. “In reality, you need to talk about it so that people can know.”
Offen, who works as a recruiter, is heavily involved in church and community service. She works on the communications board for her region in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which gives her opportunities to build bridges. She recently helped connect West Jordan Councilmember Zach Jacob with a local chapter of the NAACP, who gave feedback as he drafted a resolution against racial inequality. At the June council meeting where Jacob presented his resolution, other council members approved it. But Offen was disappointed with the speeches that followed Jacob’s.
Councilmember Kayleen Whitelock said she appreciated the “major changes” from Jacobs’ first proposed resolution to the one ultimately adopted in June. “What I want is positive things for our city,” Whitelock said. “Where we can do that, I’m happy to be supportive.”
Councilmember David Pack added, “I think we all agree on the same fundamental idea that black lives matter and that every life matters.” He wanted to ensure the resolution wasn’t focused just on black people, but on all races, socioeconomic statuses and professions. “We shouldn’t just be speaking of color and race but all differences,” he said.
“They watered it down,” Offen said. “People are so afraid to talk about these issues,” calling them too negative or too violent. But that kind of talk “shows their privilege.”
Offen runs the Facebook page of one councilmember, whom she declined to name. She joked, “I wanted to post a Black Lives Matter video on his page out of spite.” She didn’t.
She speaks with the air of someone who is practiced in explaining sensitive racial issues to those who take offense to words like “racism” and “white privilege”—in fact she counted her own husband and son (who passes for white) among this group. She acknowledges that the words can feel like attacks, and that we need a better way to explain these ideas. But ultimately, we have to stop searching for “comfort zones” in the midst of uncomfortable conversations.
“We need to be able to see two different truths at the same time,” she said about police. “We have to honor the hurtful experiences of others. That doesn’t always mean trying to focus on the positive. There’s room to see both. It’s not about one side or the other. We can [support police] at the same time that we acknowledge suffering.”